What should we do about Somalia?

Introduction:  Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) originally posted at Defense and the National Interest.  Everything he writes is worth reading; this is one of his best.

Beats hell out of me.  First, it’s not clear that there really is a Somalia — the CIA World Factbook identifies the Republic of Somaliland and a self-declared autonomous state of Puntland as making strides towards legitimate, representative government.  New states, in other words.

Second, the only reasons most Americans care at all about Somalia, other than those with relatives in the area, are 1) pirates, and 2) terrorists.  Pirates are the current news filler nowadays, so lets look at terrorists.

As former FBI manager Ali Soufan explained in an article in the Wall St. J. last week, there are groups in Somalia whose leaders had received some level of training by al-Qa’ida.  Presumably that training ended more than seven years ago, so any success these groups have achieved recently have been through their own efforts.

The important question is what we do next. Soufan engages in the usual recipe that is notable for not having worked anywhere on the surface of the planet:

A comprehensive international diplomatic push to stabilize Somalia is crucial. In the meantime, the U.S. has to put in place a regional strategy that encompasses diplomatic, economic, intelligence, law-enforcement and military initiatives aimed at weakening the terrorists and enhancing living conditions for civilians.

The plan may include covert actions against al Shabab leaders and camps; apprehension and prosecution of wanted operatives; increasing aid to the president and his allies if they are determined to be trustworthy; increasing aid to Kenya to help it better police its borders; and an effort to bring neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia on board.

Tom Barnett is ready to unleash AFRICOM on the territory:

Think AFRICOM won’t be important over the long haul?

Think again.

Unfortunately, Tom doesn’t explain what AFRICOM is going to do.  Put Somalia back together?  That would solve the problem, if only we knew how to do it.  The last group that tried, the Ethiopians, are scurrying back across the border even as we speak.

Throw a ton of money at the place?  Can you spell “corruption”?

It’s tempting to think that we should just put a strongman in control — there were no pirates or terrorists in Iraq under Saddam — but this is a form of mental weakness on our part.  Most caudillos quickly become corrupt, leaving their countries in even worse shape.  What’s important is that the people of that region evolve the type of government(s) that will suit them, and it’s not our job to try to do it for them.

All I can think of is that we work with the proto-states of Somaliland and Puntland however we can.  This won’t be easy, as our experience in much of the Balkans (which are, culturally, vastly closer to us than are Somali societies) indicates.  As for the rest of the country, we need to cooperate with and develop any sources of stability we can find.  It’s worth warning, again, that this is a very difficult game to play because once money starts to flow, jockeying for support by folks claiming to represent this or that constituency will be frenetic.  [Check out Tom Wolfe’s classic Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers for a description of how this works, and that in our own country.]

So we need to develop some level of expertise in dealing with the region, and perhaps that’s what Tom means when he invokes AFRICOM, which bills itself as “a different kind of command,” although still a command of the Department of Defense headed by a four-star general.  What we must avoid at all costs, though, is another large-scale occupation of a foreign country in an attempt to remake it into whatever image we think is appropriate.

And it would also help if we quit acting scared to death of a few criminals with a religious veneer ensconced in a poverty-ridden “country” some 8,000 miles away.  Terrorists are going to strike us again — there’s no way to prevent it — but in the meantime, just to put the threat into perspective, we lose more than 3,000 people to traffic accidents and 1,500 to homicides every month.

If you legitimately want to scare yourself, you might pick a real threat, like the one Fabius Maximus identifies in his blog today.

13 thoughts on “What should we do about Somalia?”

  1. it would be much simpler, cheaper to restore to the Somalis the fishing opportunities they used to have(suggested a French naval officer, who knew, this was coming): give them a NATO or US Coast Guard, fending away European trawlers and the Somali pirates would revert to fishing(well, let’s hope, after all fishing doesn’t earn nearly as much as pirating).
    Fabius Maximus replies: Good point! Most articles about the Somali pirates assume that they watched “Captain Blood” and said “That’s cool; let’s do it.” As usual, the War Nerd gives the important details:

    These guys used to be humble fishermen, till the Taiwanese and Korean trawlers took advantage of the fact that Somalia has no government to scoop every last sculpin out of the waters they used to fish. No government means no coast guard, so who was going to stop them? Well, karma went out and traded in its fishing boats for a few fast outboards and some Yemeni guns, and made a career move into the piracy business. Now they are what the NT would call “fishers of men.” And getting rich off it, bling and all the nomad girls you can buy.

  2. houswife,

    Solutions like that are how we need to be thinking. I don’t have any idea whether that one would work, but anything that might start getting an economy going is worth looking at. Plus it doesn’t require us to occupy them or impose a government.

    Fishing may not be as lucrative as piracy, but I’d guess it’s a lot safer, particularly as NATO naval presence increases.

  3. I thought they had a new , reasonably popular government that looks very promising – under Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed – an ex teacher with experience in the ( effective but defunct ) Islamic Courts administration .
    Unless someone’s bumped him off already , I guess he’ll try to deal with the issue of piracy as soon as he can . He does have other pressing issues to deal with too ….

  4. Question: What should we do about Somalia?
    Answer: As little as possible.

    Somalia is the prototypical failed state, one in which we have already tried unsuccessfully to intervene during the 1990s. As Mark Bowden’s brilliant book “Blackhawk Down” makes clear, American and U.N. forces entered Somalia with the intent of preventing genocide and feeding the hungry, but ended up fighting a 4th generation conflict instead. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, and no good deed goes unpunished. Cliches? Of course, but aplpicable in this case.

    Sometimes, the dragon wins. Americans are a can-do people accustomed to rolling up their sleeves and tackling tough situations. It offends our optimistic national nature to acknowledge that some geopolitical problems are beyond our reach, and cannot be solved. Haven’t we yet learned this lesson, after nearly a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan? We would be wise to be humble about the limits of our power. As with an illness, sometimes events have to be allowed to run their course.

    Lind suggests that the primary challenge facing first-world nations today is that of failed states. The former are (relative) centers of order, the latter of disorder. Since failed states often export 4GW, still-functioning nations must localize the problem as much as possible, while taking steps to improve whatever is within their reach to influence. It must be borne in mind that some problems will prove intractable to outside solutions, and can be solved only by those directly affected – in their own time, in their own way.

    America is half-way around the globe from Somalia, and should only be involved there when U.S. interests are directly at stake, such as in the hijacking of U.S.-flagged ships by pirates. Somalia’s neighbors are better-equipped culturally to assist that nation, with the next-most-qualified being regional European powers such as Italy (which colonized Somalia for many years) or France. Economic and other non-military tools are preferable, but if military action is needed, it should follow 4GW theory; either overwhelming force applied quickly and ruthlessly, or by forces leaving as light a footprint as possible. Expeditionary punitive raids are another possibility, provided they get in and get out quickly. It is also very important to leave a face-saving “out” for an eventual end to the fighting, and to strengthen the hand of those Somalis trying to build a better life and nation for themselves. Strengthen your allies, divide and weaken your foes. Under no circumstances should we have a permanent military presence in Somalia.

  5. Somalia (continued):

    I wasn’t aware of the presence of Taiwanese and Korean fishing vessels off the coast; if these are depleting Somalian fishing stocks, crowding out local vessels, or operating inside Somali waters without permission, then the Somali government (or its nearest equivalent) has a legitimate grievance to put before the UN. Either the Somalies should be fishing there, or royalties should be paid for local fishing rights. Even if such fees are pocketed by tribal leaders, at least the developed nations are acting justly, and keeping the all-important moral high ground. The developed nations must not act or be seen to act as neo-colonizers, taking local resources without compensation. Securing just fishing rights for the Somalis is just the sort of “carrot” the developed nations should be pursuing, to the extent that such measures are available.

    Offer the carrot, but be prepared to use the stick just in case. International law is quite clear on the rights of mariners concerning piracy; summary execution is permitted of such high-seas brigands and has been for centuries. To the degree that the developed nations do not take forceful, direct action against piracy, I believe Lind would argue that this is a symptom of the decay of the state.

  6. Nicholas Weaver

    Why not ALMOST ignore it? With the exception of terrorism and piracy, Somalia doesn’t matter to the US interests. So we should focus only on the areas which matter: For terrorism, monitoring and local intelligence: somali-americans with briefcases of money seems like one of the only options. Known, monitored, and tracked terrorists are not the threat.

    For pirates, you have to attack the economic system:

    a) For any vessel where a ransom was paid to release the vessel, if the vessel reaches US or european waters, the vessel should be confiscated and destroyed: this removes a major economic incentive for piracy. A ship owner can pay the ransom or not pay, either way, the boat is gone. So just don’t pay.

    b) For any hostage negotiation, play nice until you can storm the vessel and kill the pirates in the process (a’la the French and US Navies), to remove the other economic incentive for piracy.

    (Where does economics fit on boyd’s spetrum of “Physical, Mental, Moral?” I’d assume mental and moral, or somewhere in between, depending).

  7. Nicholas, You asked:

    Where does economics fit on Boyd’s spectrum of “Physical, Mental, Moral?” I’d assume mental and moral, or somewhere in between, depending.

    Good question. One way to look at it is that economic measures, like any other, are neutral. They can have physical, mental, or moral effects. Interestingly, most of the time, economic warfare falls into Boyd’s category of attrition warfare, where we intend a moral purpose — break our enemies’ wills to resist — by causing damage to their societies. [For more on this, see Patterns 113.]
    Fabius Maximus replies: Economic warfare is not new. It was the essence of medieval warfare, as described by Barbara Tuchman in “A Distant Mirror – the Calamitous 14th Century” (page 80):

    “Medieval wars between Europeans were not aimed at strategic conquest but rather at seizure of dynastic rule at the top by inflicting enough damage to bring about downfall of the opponent.”

    The primary means of economic warfare was the chevauchée. From Wikipedia:

    A chevauchée (French for “promenade” or “horse charge”, depending on context) was a method in medieval warfare for weakening the enemy, focusing mainly on wreaking havoc, burning and pillaging enemy territory, in order to reduce the productivity of a region; as opposed to siege warfare or wars of conquest. The chevauchée could be used as a way of forcing an enemy to fight, or as a means of discrediting the enemy’s government and detaching his subjects from their loyalty. This usually caused a massive flight of refugees to fortified towns and castles, which would be untouched by the chevauchée.

  8. Pete: “I wasn’t aware of the presence of Taiwanese and Korean fishing vessels off the coast;”

    Not to mention the dumping of toxic waste by (it appears) primarily European corporations in Somali waters, either illegally, or by payment to warlords. (Some of which washed up on shore during a 2005 tsunami). See Google.

    The comment by housewife to restore the fishing industry is the preferable direction, in addition employ Somalis in a coastal waters clean up. Humanitarian efforts of the 90’s turned into 4th gen warfare, maybe we can effect some change by confining ourselves to the littoral, restore the fishing industry, clean up Somali waters and provide ocean protection while training Somalis to do same. It is doubtful that order will spread from the sea to the rest of the country overnight, but it might just be the beginning of a very slow process towards helping Somalia dig itself out of failed state status.

    Two points to contemplate:
    1. The US killing 3 pirates must raise the violence stakes in the piracy game. I expect piracy to become more deadly as pirates are more serious about security and more suspicious.
    2. There surely has to be an interest in piracy by Al Quaida, the US may push these two groups together, be it a common enemy, or a mutual interest.

  9. Nicholas Weaver

    To followup to myown and Mr Richards and Fabius’s responses:

    I think it depends on how economic warfare is conducted. What Fabius Maximus described was physical: destruction of the means of support. What the disrupt the economy of piracy (John Rabb I think is the big advocate in the “disrupt the ransom” camp, but I can’t remember for sure) want would probably be considered mental or moral: disruption of the reason for one side in the conflict.

    Also, a good general report on the economics of piracy: “Pirates Have Timesheets“, Planet Money, NPR, 22 April 2009 — video, no transcript.

  10. The cost benefit analysis of using billion dollar destroyers to patrol the area comes up short. What about PT boats? I am no expert but it seems to me that for the cost of one destroyer, we could have more than enough PT boats to patrol the littoral off Somalia. Hell, we could find a (relatively) friendly faction over there, give them the PT boats, and put them in charge (bribe) of protecting our shipping. You put a kill switch in there, such that they need to receive an update from a satellite every so often to continue functioning.
    Fabius Maximus replies: We no longer have PT boats. The closest the US Navy has are its Littoral Combat Ships at $500 million per. For more about this nonsense, see “Why Terrorists and Pirates Are Not About to Team Up Any Time Soon“, John Feffer, posted at TomDispatch, 21 April 2009.

  11. Of course our special interest over bloated pentagon wants to spend half a billion dollars on a ship. But I think we could easily buy something off the shelf, up armor it and slap some .50s on there for a million bux or less.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You must realize by now that the Pentagon buys what it wants, not what we need.

  12. Nicholas Weaver

    And, with the exception of General Atomics, the defense contractors BUILD what the Pentagon wants, not what it needs.

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